Bunraku: narrative stories with human dimension

Although it’s been too many years for me to remember the story itself, I still remember the first time I saw Bunraku performed, some forty years ago. I was enchanted by the movements of the dolls and the handlers who manipulated them, not to mention the narration, the music, the costuming and the staging. Bunraku quickly became my favorite of Japan’s performing arts.

Last week there was a special Bunraku performance at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) that reminded me of just how much I love this very special form of theatre.

The players, based in Osaka (the traditional home of Bunraku theatre), remained in Tokyo an extra day after performing at the National Theatre in order to perform at the FCCJ. They performed one scene from each of two plays: Cherry Trees at Twilight Along the Hidaka River (1759) and The White Buddha (1959).

Just the fact that these two plays are separated by two centuries reveals a lot about the popularity and persistent nature of Bunraku, a form of theatre that developed in the late 17th century and can credit its popular appeal to the fact that the storylines of plays often involve aspects of the daily lives of ordinary people. Yet they are tales that endure across time, offering relevance to the modern theatre-goer.

Some people think of Bunraku as Japan’s “puppet theatre”, but the three performers required to manipulate each figure are quick to point out that in fact, there is no puppet. The figure, popularly known as a doll, consists of a head, body and arms (and, in the case of male dolls, feet) connected by the costume.

Although there is no puppet, for simplicity’s sake, the performers manipulating the dolls are often referred to in English as puppeteers. The principal puppeteer manipulates the head and the right arm, the first assistant puppeteer is responsible for the left arm and the second assistant handles the feet or, in the case of female dolls, the movement of the legs. (After the performance, the second assistant demonstrated how he uses his fist, inside the doll’s kimono, to create the effect of bended knees for female dolls.)

Even as a relatively empty garment, the dolls, about half life-sized, can weigh around 10 kg. (22 lb.). Holding and manipulating the bulky doll requires a good deal of stamina, especially since some Bunraku plays can last for most of a day. There is also acting involved. Even though the puppeteers dress is black to make them effectively “invisible” (or at least easier to ignore), watching the body language, particularly of the principal puppeteer, it is easy to see how the movements of his body mirror those of the doll (or is it the other way around?). Generally the black garb of the assistant puppeteers extends to a face covering, while the principal puppeteer works with his face exposed (although any puppeteer will tell you they are expected to keep their faces expressionless during the performance).

It is often suggested that part of the popularity of Bunraku stems from the fact that the dolls can do things that live action players cannot. One example can be seen in Hidaka River, when the primary character becomes angry and her pretty face is transformed to that of an ogre, complete with horns that pop out of her forehead.

Bunraku stories are conveyed by a narrator known as a tayu. Tayu are versatile performers who convey the voices of all of the play’s characters, whether male, female, old or young. Like the puppeteers, tayu performances require a good deal of stamina, as they are often speaking, in character voices, for hours. Tayu also use no microphone or artificial voice amplification. Instead, they project from the diaphragm with the aid of 1) a hara-obi belt wrapped around the abdomen for support, 2) the kata-giru (broad shouldered over-vest) weighted with a kind of beanbag to induce appropriate posture, and 3) a shiri-hiki stool that allows the tayu to sit on his knees but in a semi-standing position.

Shamisen accompaniment is also essential to Bunraku performances. Indeed it is said that Bunraku could not have come into existence had the shamisen not been introduced to Japan from Okinawa, since before that there was no instrument that could convey various emotions as well as providing a musical thread to the story. Offstage (but brought on stage at the FCCJ for demonstration purposes), a drum also provides evocative sounds, including rain, snow and the rushing of a river.

These detailed explanations provided by the performers themselves were fascinating. But the real highlight of the evening was the performance of an excerpt of the 1959 play “The White Buddha”. This play, telling the story of Kenta, a mixed-race child who was the product of an African-American soldier and his Japanese wife, enjoyed popularity at the time of its release because it was topical. It has not been performed since, and the doll specially made for this play has been in storage for over 60 years, brought out now for this performance.

Kenta, born on the southwestern island of Kyushu, was orphaned when his soldier father died in Korea and his mother died of cancer. He is sent to live with his maternal grandfather in a small village in west-central Honshu where, in the story, he encounters snow for the first time. Kenta, who has been struggling to fit in or gain acceptance in the closed society of the village, observes that the statue of the bodhisattva Jizo, a guardian of children and travelers, is turning white as the snow accumulates.

Kenta asks his grandfather if the snow might also turn him white, thus making him more acceptable to the neighbors. Kenta’s grandfather, who has also been pressured by his neighbors to maintain social harmony by sending the child away or even killing him because of his racial impurity, initially suggests to the child that if he can endure standing out in the snow, eventually he will turn white like the Jizo statue. Fortunately, before it is too late, the grandfather realizes that he loves his grandchild too much to let him die of exposure, even for the sake of social harmony, and there is an emotional final scene between them.

The story is thought-provoking, even in the twenty-first century when diversity, and even mixed-race children, have gained a relatively greater degree of acceptance in Japan. It seems a pity that it is not performed more frequently as Japan’s population increasingly diversifies. As with other tales, perhaps it takes a performing art like Bunraku to address the human element of the more challenging aspects of themes like racial purity versus diversity and social harmony versus love of an innocent child.

This special performance truly was a treat and has forced me to admit that I really should try to see Bunraku more often.

© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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